This report presents results for the second wave of the ‘Seldom Heard Voices’ research programme. It includes findings with Vulnerable Groups, End of Life, Carers and Care Experienced, and Survivors of Abuse strands. The research was designed to engage with these Seldom Heard groups to better understand their experiences and views of benefits.
The research took place from October 2020 to December 2021. In total, 67 participants from the Seldom Heard strands took part in interviews. It also involved an online survey completed by 24 respondents from the Carers and Care Experienced strand. The sections below provide an overview of the main findings and themes which emerged from this research.
General experiences of benefits
Interview participants and survey respondents had diverse experiences with benefits. Benefits they frequently applied for were Universal Credit (UC), Child Benefit (CB) and Personal Independence Payment (PIP).
Communication channels for information and application processes
People across the Seldom Heard groups found benefit information from a range of sources such as online searches, support organisations, word of mouth, benefit staff, and public sector workers from health services and local authorities.
Mixed views were conveyed concerning how easy it was to get information. A few respondents and participants mentioned that it was easy to get information online. However, several highlighted the difficulties they had finding information from different channels.
Survey respondents and interview participants used various communication formats to make benefit applications: online, by paper, by telephone, and in person with benefit staff. Most participants found the application processes difficult with a few noting that it was an easy process.
Support with navigating the benefit system
Many reported a strong reliance on support workers from third sector organisations. They said they gave them support for finding information on benefit entitlement, completing the applications, and signposting further services. Others reported getting help from support workers from local authorities and their informal networks. Mixed views were identified in relation to support from benefit staff from Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and Jobcentre Plus (JCP).
The effects of the Coronavirus pandemic on accessing the benefit system
Around a fifth (21 per cent) of survey respondents noted it was not easy to find out about the impact of coronavirus, furlough, and self-isolation on benefits. Over a half (54 per cent) said they were not sure. Survey respondents who provided some explanation of why it was not easy mainly noted confusion when having to look for information.
When communicating by phone during the pandemic, a few interview participants experienced long waiting times getting benefit information or checking on the progress of their applications. Others also highlighted long waiting times for the outcome of their applications or arranging phone appointments.
Views on benefits being devolved to Scotland
Participants from the Vulnerable Groups strand were asked about their views of some benefits being transferred to Social Security Scotland. A few were not aware of the changes in the administration of some benefits. Mixed views were conveyed when being told about the changes.
A few participants thought this change will affect positively and they were hopeful that clients will have more help when accessing benefits. Others raised the following concerns and fears regarding the transfer of some benefits to Scotland: data security, the need to reapply, and the decrease of their current payments.
Key barriers with the benefit system
Difficulties finding information
Several participants and respondents highlighted the difficulty of finding information about what benefits they may be entitled to. Some mentioned that this resulted in avoiding start claims, missing out or delaying access to the benefits there were eligible for.
For many the information was unclear, confusing, and contradictory. They mentioned there are several sources of information, but it is not streamlined nor clear. Others thought that benefit staff from Department for Work and Pensions and Jobcentres were not transparent about providing information about potential eligible benefits to clients. A few highlighted the complexity of navigating government websites.
A small number of participants reported they were not told about their eligibility to passported benefits and they only found out about them circumstantially. Many said they knew about their eligibility to benefits by chance.
Complexity of application forms
Many participants and respondents felt that the application forms were lengthy and complicated. The wording of the applications was considered complex and not user friendly. Some mentioned that the questions were too prescriptive and repetitive and they did not allow them to capture the nature of their health conditions or their particular circumstances. Others felt that the questions were designed to avoid successful claims.
Challenges when accessing the benefit system online
Many highlighted the challenges related with applying to benefits online. These include not having access to a computer or a smartphone, not knowing how to use them, and not having access to internet. Some participants also thought that people who are not computer literate may feel embarrassed and struggle to get help.
Gathering information and evidence for application processes
Some participants reported various challenges for getting personal information or evidence required as part of their application processes. A number of participants from the vulnerable groups, in particular those who experienced homelessness or were in custody, highlighted challenges because they did not have a permanent address, a bank account or an identity document to start and follow up benefit applications.
Some noted that getting evidence related to mental health conditions was difficult. Related to this, a small number of participants felt that the medical evidence they provided was not recognised as much as it should be as part of their medical assessments.
Many participants experienced stress and humiliation when attending health assessments. Some thought the process of medical assessments is dehumanising. Others noted the questions during the assessment were closed questions based on a tick-box exercise with no room to account for fluctuating health conditions, in particular mental health conditions. A few thought the assessments were purposefully designed to make it hard to get successful benefit claims.
Some participants felt that that the views and comments of assessors were subjective. They thought that the outcomes of the benefit award decisions were the result of chance, mainly depending on the subjective comments of the assigned assessor. A few were critical about the frequency of health reviews for some long-term health conditions unlikely to change.
Stigma and distrust from the benefit system
Many participants felt discriminated and stigmatised against when interacting with benefit staff and when applying to benefits with the Department for Work and Pensions and Jobcentres. Some participants said they felt the whole culture of the benefit system is underpinned by distrust and suspicion towards the client. They felt frequently judged for relying on benefits and not being in paid work.
This negative perception towards the benefit system made many participants anxious and stressed when having to carry out benefit processes. A few mentioned that going through these processes exacerbates their mental health conditions.
Waiting times and financial hardship
Several participants gave accounts of the lengthy waiting times for various benefit processes. They reported how these waiting times made them experience financial hardship.
Many participants who had experiences with UC processes highlighted that the waiting times for their first payments were too long and impacted negatively on their finances. Some participants also experienced lengthy waiting times for getting award decisions, mostly for some disability related benefits like PIP or Disability Living Allowance (DLA).
Many participants reported that the lengthy waiting times for getting payments and receiving award decisions caused them financial difficulties such as a needing to use foodbanks, borrowing money and relying on their family networks to get by.
Many participants expressed their views in relation to the value of benefit payments being too low, and not matching the cost of living. Others thought the value of the payments were low because it deters people to rely on benefits.
Enablers and views on improvement of the benefit system
Across the Seldom Heard groups, suggestions of having a range of choices to access information, to apply to benefits and to get support were conveyed. Many thought the provision of various channels of communication would suit the different needs, circumstances, and preferences of clients.
Interview participants and survey respondents had a range of preferences for how to access information, how to apply for benefits and how to get support. These included: online, written information, telephone, and face to face communication.
Comprehensive and streamlined information
Many participants highlighted the importance of providing information that is accessible, easy to read, clear, and in plain English. They said the information should contain comprehensive information about eligibility, levels of funding, and various application processes. Others suggested the provision of a dedicated point of contact which focuses on giving all the information and support about benefits.
A single point of contact
Some suggested having a single point of contact to avoid repeating their personal experiences, needs, and health conditions. They also recommended a single point of contact as it would simplify the benefit system, help to have clear communication, and reduce waiting times.
Some participants mentioned that benefit staff should provide guidance and signpost specific services that support the needs of specific groups. A few participants highlighted the need for a fast-tracked process for accessing benefits in the context of terminal illness and progressive health conditions.
Specialist and empathetic staff
Many participants wanted the benefit staff to be fully trained and have regular updates on the system so they can provide comprehensive information about benefits, interaction across benefits and benefit changes. Many also mentioned that staff should be trained to understand the specific circumstances of different groups such as survivors of abuse, terminal illness and bereavement.
Many participants proposed reducing waiting times between application and payment so clients could prevent falling on financial hardship. A few suggested that the value of the benefit should increase to cover a minimum standard of living.
Simplification of application processes
A few recommended the ability to track progress and updates of their applications. A few had positive experiences related to being given updates and reminders by email and texts. A small number of participants highlighted the need to have more updates so they can manage their finances better and feel less uncertainty.
A few participants thought it would be useful if personal information and evidence of the client could be stored centrally so they could avoid repeating their circumstances.
Health Assessments and renewals
Some participants suggested that health assessments should be carried out by medical professionals as they have the expertise to understand physical and mental health conditions and their impact on daily living.
Some mentioned that medical evidence provided by hospitals and General Practitioners (GP) should carry more weight for health assessments and award decisions. A few argued to reconsider the frequency of assessments for clients who have long-term conditions which are unlikely to change.
Flexibility in the system and wider support
A few participants highlighted that the benefit system needs to be designed with more flexibility so individual situations and sudden change of circumstances of clients are taking into account.
Some participants recommended the provision of specialised and wider support alongside the help with benefit payments. A few suggested the provision of specific and tailored employment support.
Third sector support
Support from third sector organisations contributed to positives experiences with the benefit system. Many participants and respondents mentioned how they were helped by support workers from third sector organisations on different aspects such as providing clear information, completing applications correctly and attending assessments and appeals.
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